Q&A with Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers

Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers began preparing for his part of the 2013 inauguration ceremony almost four years ago. With President Obama’s second swearing-in almost a month away, Ayers, his staff and numerous contractors have been executing plans to construct the inaugural platform, assemble 30,000 chairs and manage lighting and sound for the AoC’s largest recurring public event.

The Architect of the Capitol is responsible for all of the physical planning on Capitol Hill that is needed for the president to take the oath of office. According to Ayers, the involvement of the Architect’s Office dates back to the 1860s, when the event began to involve more public participation.

Ayers, who served as acting architect for Obama’s first inauguration, said not much has changed for him personally since the 2009 event. The “buck still stops” with me, he said.

Q: What does your day look like on Inauguration Day?

 I spend the night right here in my office so that I’m here first thing in the morning as well as through the night to see if anything happens. And I’m often asked how I feel about this peaceful transition of power and being kind of in the moment and being in the euphoria of the moment. But for me it’s not really that way. I’m sitting there with a police radio in one ear and I’m thinking about all of the plans that we made. Thinking about everything that could possibly go wrong — what happens if the lights go out? What happens if the president is giving his address to the nation and the sound system goes out?

Q: What’s the coordination like between the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC), the Presidential Inauguration Committee (PIC) and your office? 

The presidential inauguration is an incredible story of coordination among bipartisan, bicameral groups, the legislative branch and the executive branch. We meet with the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies virtually weekly, talk with them virtually every day, and then we have partner meetings once a month ... The most impressive coordination really happens, I think, among the law enforcement community, where there’s countless numbers of separate law enforcement departments that come together for such a national-security event, to coordinate all law enforcement activities.

Q: How many people does the platform hold? 

 The presidential platform that we build is about 10,000 square feet — on the amphitheater and lower portion of the platform it holds about 1,600 people — and then, on the upper west terrace, above that platform we put a series of bleachers that can hold several hundred more participants in the ceremony. Below that, of course, is the Army band. … And then on the west front we put out about 30,000 chairs for seated sections.

Q: What are your biggest concerns going into inauguration, specifically this year or in general? 

Snow is bad for us. If it snows, especially if there is a considerable snowstorm the night before the inauguration, we have to then implement our snow-removal plan and it takes hundreds of people to get all of that snow off the platform, off the chairs, off the sidewalks, off the streets to enable the platform to be ready for occupancy.

Q: What about rain; which one is worse? 

Snow is much worse than rain. Nothing much we can do about rain. If it’s going to rain, there are ponchos. Rain just goes away, but snow sits and accumulates, and we have to physically pick it up and remove it.

Q: What does a successful inauguration look like for you? 

For me, a successful inauguration is one where we are prepared in advance. We’re finished with our work well in advance to enable the Joint Congressional Inaugural Committee to do practice runs and hold dry runs of the inaugural ceremony. … Nothing happens on the day of, nobody gets hurt. The inauguration goes off without any security or operational events, none of our equipment malfunctions or goes wrong, we don’t have to use backup equipment and the president moves on to the inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue on time. And no snow.

Q: Did you seek any advice on planning the inauguration? 

When I came into the first inauguration, I certainly spoke to my predecessor, the 10th Architect of the Capitol, and had a great number of meetings with my staff, so that I could fully understand what our responsibilities are, what our plans are, what happens in the days leading up to the event and, most importantly, what our backup plans are. You know, we go in with plan A, we have to be ready to execute plan B, we have to be ready to execute plan C.